How Magpie Lane started

10 Apr 2022

I’d never intended to write an Oxford novel. It always seemed to me that to put a hat in the ring with the greats of English literature – Iris Murdoch or Philip Pullman or any of the hundreds of brilliant authors who have written novels set in Oxford – would be foolish. But one day, a few years ago, I was in my old Oxford College when I got chatting to a tall and friendly man, casually dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and trainers.  When he introduced himself as ‘Steve, the new College President’, and said it was his first day in the job, I assumed he was joking. In my mind, college Presidents were dour, hunched, silvery figures – Classicists, probably – and certainly never to be seen in a pair of Nikes.

He offered to show me his new home, the President’s Lodging. It was 27 years since I’d last set foot in that ancient pink house and I had a vague, traumatised memory of ticking clocks and squeaking shoes, fusty rooms crammed with polished furniture and grim oil paintings of men in ermine. But the house I toured that day had been transformed: the walls were soft white, the Jacobean floors polished, a beautiful abstract dominated the fireplace and the light streamed in, as if the windows had somehow been enlarged. When he showed me a tiny cupboard, and explained that it was a priest’s hole, where priests from the ruthless Elizabethan priest hunters, I was hooked. I didn’t see Steve again but I was to spend the next three years in his house.

The Master’s Lodging…

Whilst there, I made some alterations of my own: I added a clever nanny, a mute child, a pregnant Danish wife, an eccentric house historian and some odd noises in the night; I moved the priest’s hole up to fictional attic, then moved the whole house to an imaginary alley, and created an entire fictional College for it. And then – perhaps biting the hand that had fed me – I turned the friendly, welcoming Steve into a Machiavellian monster, and Magpie Lane was born.

The real Magpie Lane

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